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McCallum: The Zen Of Weeding

09/11/12 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) This summer, educator, writer and commentator Mary McCallum took a break from the workaday world to do a few odd jobs, and discovered some unexpected pleasures in the process.

(McCallum) I was in the garden with Elvin. It was going to be a scorching day in a string of hot ones during the July heat wave. Or heat and dust wave, as I often called it. Weeks without rain turned the perennial flower beds rock hard and coated Vermont cars with powdery road dust. Although I had arrived at 8:00 a.m. to help Elvin in his vegetable garden, the sun had already started to cook the top of my head. Worried about cooking my brain too, I donned a floppy hat and followed him into his gardens that were thick with thriving vegetables and battalions of weeds.

I've been gardening for Elvin and his wife once a week this summer in my new role as the go-to person for odd jobs. It's a fractured work life that has me bouncing between gardening, house cleaning, pet sitting, plant sitting, wedding waitressing and freelance writing. The variety and pace suit me, and I've found unanticipated benefits and pleasures to being a self-employed "odd job jenny" - like improved strength and stamina. And discovering country roads I've never seen before, and meeting new people who live on those roads. The experience has shown me that if I want work, it's out there.

But back to the garden. Elvin offers to attack the overgrown raspberry patch if I tend to the carpet of weeds knotted among the vegetables. While these wild invaders can destroy a garden, I love their vivid names: sheep sorrel, purslane, witchgrass, pigweed, lambs quarters, and the notorious and evil goutweed - whose string of marvelous aliases includes Bishop's Weed, Jack Jumpabout, and my favorite, Farmer's Plague.

I savor the shade of the tall corn while crawling between its rows, hacking ruthlessly with my sharp garden tool and tossing moisture-sucking weeds into piles. Then out into the sun again, which burns into my back as I find my rhythm. Time falls away, distilled to birdsong, the muffled sound of a passing car, and dry rustling coming from the raspberry patch where Elvin's Asian coolie hat bobs above the canes. On my hands and knees, my focus has shrunk to one square foot of soil. I am meticulous, afloat in the zen of weeding.

Over a lifetime of work with long stints in professional positions that drew upon my college degrees, job satisfaction was sometimes elusive. There were the late day staff meetings, an ever growing tsunami of paperwork, scores of emails to respond to, unruly students and cranky colleagues. Often, the admirable philosophy of the work and the joy of doing it became overshadowed by the long hand of bureaucracy in its drive to do more with less. So at least for this summer, I decided to turn that idea on its head: do less and get more - joy that is.

In odd jobbing for others I have been able to pay the bills, and for now, that's enough. But it's the gardening and the zen of weeding that have handed me the moments to do some of my clearest thinking. And even on my hands and knees, that doesn't feel like work.
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